Being Latinx in the US Post-Trump and El Paso Tragedy
I want to start by acknowledging that, although news stories regarding gun violence are almost always related to mass shootings, gun violence affects communities daily and has affected certain marginalized groups significantly more than others. CW: gun violence
On the morning of Aug. 3, 2019 at approximately 10:30 a.m., I received three text messages from a close friend. They read:
“Katie stay home if you can
“There is an active shooter in El Paso
“He is at the Walmart near Cielo Vista”
My initial reaction was shock. As I went through my feed on various social media applications and began watching live news coverage, a sort of numbness settled in me. It’s one thing to hear about a mass shooting happening across the country, and it’s another to hear about it happening in your community, 25 minutes away from your home. I, along with most of El Paso, stayed glued to my couch that day waiting for updates to be aired. Minor details were shared throughout the day: the shooter’s race (white), gender (cisgender man), hometown (Allen, Texas), etc. The shooter’s manifesto began to circulate social media a few hours later. News outlets then began broadcasting the possibility that the shooting was potentially a hate crime and the shooter might have specifically targeted the Latinx community. It was then that the numbness in my body was replaced by a familiar feeling of hopelessness – the same feeling I had when Trump was elected.
As a Latinx person, living in the United States since the election of Donald Trump has been...interesting to say the least. I can very clearly remember the way 16-year-old me felt when I found out that he had won: a sense of hopelessness and pain washed over me and I went to sleep wishing that there had been a mistake. I know that I am not the only one who felt this way, but for those who may be thinking that my reaction was exaggerated, let me expand a bit more.
My feelings in that moment had almost nothing to do with his policy proposals - if I’m honest, I had no knowledge of his platform. I felt hopeless because a man who constantly used negative rhetoric when talking about immigrants, specifically Mexican immigrants, had been voted into office. He began his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants, which include my parents and half of my extended family, rapists and drug dealers who were coming into the US and making it a violent and unsafe country. Additionally, he proposed building a “wall” along the US-Mexican border, when there has already been a fence along most of the border since before 2008.
I understand and acknowledge that the amount of people who genuinely agree with Trump’s statements is not nearly as many as the media portrays it to be. But the fact of the matter is that whether or not people agree with Trump’s statements on Mexican immigrants, if they voted for him, they put him in a position to spread negative, false, and racist ideas that have created misperceptions of an entire group of people. We have all seen that the rhetoric that he uses in regards to immigration and the Latinx community has not changed since he first announced his candidacy. This contributed to an increase in political polarization in regards to policy proposals and changes regarding immigration (like slowing adjudication processes, decreasing the cap for refugees by roughly 73%). This August, we also saw Trump’s rhetoric used in the manifesto written by the El Paso shooter.
It’s been more than a month since the shooting and I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that the shooter drove 10 hours to El Paso to inflict harm on Latinx people that he had never met. Having read his manifesto, I think that much of his reasoning was tied to statements that Trump has made, and although Trump is not the first person to make those types of remarks, he is certainly in a much more influential position as the current president of the United States. The sad thing about the shooting and the rhetoric that has been used in regards to immigration, migrants, the border, and the Latinx community is that in the eyes of many, these people are no longer people: they have been dehumanized. The viral retweeting of migrants who have drowned or died crossing the border is an example of this dehumanization; news articles should have instead included pictures of the deceased people provided by their families. Another example is the constant act of equating the worth of migrants to the fact that they provide much of the labor that is integral to the US economy instead of valuing them and their experiences solely because they are human beings.
This fact has become increasingly more heartbreaking to me after this past summer, when I interned for an organization back home, in El Paso, called the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Inc. They provide free/low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees in southern New Mexico and ten counties in Texas. One of my main roles was to translate the declarations of people seeking asylum from Spanish to English. Although each story presented unique experiences of hardships, it is important to note that there were similar problems in all the declarations; most, if not all asylum seekers had experienced gun violence and physical, mental, or sexual abuse. Given that they were all coming from the Northern Triangle - Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador - a region that is wrought with violence largely caused by US intervention, it is not surprising that they encountered similar systemic issues. People in this region have been put in traumatic situations that no human should ever have to experience. What's worse is that, after enduring traumatizing experiences caused largely by the actions of the US, refugees seek asylum in the US and experience yet another bout of trauma and pain, again at the hands of the US. Given the fact that we know of the harm that is experienced and to what degree, it is so hard to understand why the immigration system is as flawed as it is. In this regard, there are a number of policies and rules that have been implemented to make it extremely hard for someone to legally migrate, including charging $900+ to file a single petition to migrate legally and not providing legal counsel to people who cannot afford them.
In addition to translating, I was also able to go to immigration court. People can go to immigration court for a variety of reasons, but the cases I witnessed were removal proceedings. To put it in more common terms, people attend removal proceedings when they are being deported after trying to win asylum or when they have decided to accept voluntary departure. In the former, people are banned from re-entering the country for some time (the time depends on the amount of time spent in the US), while in the latter, they have the option to re-enter. Regardless of the situation, during removal proceedings, the judge is in charge of deciding the deportation date.
These proceedings tend to follow a sort of “script” and don’t often take longer than 30 minutes. The judge and attorneys speak in English while a translator that translates between Spanish and English to the person being deported. Although there is a translator present, the language used is still very formal. As a bilingual person, I was not able to understand some of the statements having heard them twice: once in Spanish and once in English. Now imagine trying to understand what is happening when you only speak Spanish and feel uncomfortable to begin with. Even worse, imagine speaking Qʼeqchi’, an Indigenous language spoken in Central and South America, and having to wait for an interpreter to be available over the phone. The day I went to immigration court, there was an 8-year-old girl from Guatemala who only spoke Qʼeqchiʼ. In order for her proceedings to occur, the judge had to call an interpreter service to get someone to translate. On that day, there was no interpreter available so her hearing was postponed, and that meant another month in the minors detention center.
That same day I also observed the proceedings of a 6-year-old boy. In an attempt to help him feel less nervous, the judge brought out a toy gavel from his office that he keeps for children that come to court. As the young boy relaxed, the attorneys and the judge had a short 5 minute conversation about how the boy had been coloring and doing pushups in the lobby before he entered the court. We all found ourselves smiling as the little boy flexed his arms and told us how he had seen a superhero doing pushups and pullups in a movie. The lightheartedness was short lived, however, and the judge determined the date of deportation.
Though the cases that I observed all resulted in deportation, all of the asylum seekers had legal representation. Legal representation greatly affects the outcome of a case in immigration court; when a person has legal council, they are two to five times more likely to be granted asylum. Not only does this reduce the chance of deportation, but it also seems like, especially as a child, having an adult advocating for you can ease some nervousness and fear. Though I could very clearly see the fear on the younger clients’ faces, I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have no legal representation.
I’ve been trying to sort through the thoughts and feelings that I had while observing immigration court. The main thing I felt (and still feel) is anger. Parents are having to send their children to another country, with the prospect of never seeing them again, in order to keep them alive. The sole fact that they are having to do this makes me angry. But the fact that these children are having to represent themselves when they don’t understand what is happening or what their options are is even worse. For those who don’t know, family is an extremely important value within Latinx culture. You grow up surrounded by family and are taught that your family should be the most important thing to you. So when families decide to send their child(ren) away to another country, they are doing it because it is the only and last hope they have. We grow up being taught to be strong and persevere through everything because that’s what our people have done for ages. So when people flee, or when they send their children here, they’ve persevered through as much as they can.
I mention the two stories above to show the degree to which asylum seekers have been dehumanized. Granted, this type of treatment towards migrants did not start four years ago when Trump was elected, and there are many logistical factors that go into creating immigration policies. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that we know that children are being forced to represent themselves, we know that ICE detention facilities are overcrowded and unsanitary, and we know that the people coming to the US are doing so because they would otherwise die. And instead of trying to somehow make it easier for immigrants to come to the US (or to alleviate some of the issues going on in their home countries), Trump and his administration, along with Mexico, are passing policies to keep Central Americans in Central America. Racist rhetoric is being used to create a misperception of who these people are. In the case of the El Paso shooting, violence is being used to intimidate Latinx immigrants from coming to this country.
I understand that changing the immigration court system, or any institution in general, is going to take years and the work of thousands of people. I hope that as students at an institution that provides us with many opportunities and privilege, we all do what we can to catalyze the reform of immigration and other institutions.
In acknowledging our privilege (and yes, being a student at Swarthmore, alone, is a privilege) we also need to acknowledge that the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers who are detained is intentional. The US is intentionally trying to create new policies to punish people who are fleeing situations in their countries that the US caused. But what’s funny is that this “immigrants are terrible people” rhetoric isn’t used all the time. As long as migrants are working in our fields and in our factories, they can stay. As long as companies and corporations can pay them in cash, they can stay. As long as migrants can be used and exploited, they can stay. But once they start entering “our schools” and taking “our jobs,” they need to go. As soon as they begin to get a taste of “the American dream” that is promised to those who come here, they need to go. That’s only for the white man. Right?
That is why those who have privilege, are wealthy, and/or are in positions of power have a responsibility to act. Ultimately, we’re all trying to process and heal from varying degrees of trauma; however, due to institutions that have resulted in systemic oppression, some communities have experienced more trauma than others. Everyone inhabits multiple identities and is in a position of privilege in at least one of their identities. We must all acknowledge the role we have in perpetuating oppressive systems and actions that have traumatized others and do something to stop it. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But marginalized communities have been uncomfortable for centuries. Yes, you will have to give away your power. But it’s time that you do. Yes, you will have to use your privilege to make space for the voices of those who have been oppressed. But you’ve silenced too many for too long. It is time to act.